SANTA CLARA, Calif. – After 82 MLS goals in the past six seasons with the San Jose Earthquakes, Chris Wondolowski’s one-word professional epitaph is already set in stone: Poacher.
Yet Saturday against Seattle, it was Wondolowski’s work more than 50 yards from goal that made the greatest difference in the Quakes’ 1-0 victory at Levi’s Stadium. Waiting for a pass from Shea Salinas off the left wing, Wondolowski took one quick touch with his right foot to nudge the ball towards the center of the pitch, completing his 180-degree turn in the process.
The split-second move rid Wondolowski of his marker, Seattle center back Jalil Anibaba, and put him in a position to see the slashing run of his strike partner Yannick Djalo. The speedy Djalo outraced the Sounders’ other center back, Zach Scott, to Wondolowski’s lead pass and tucked the ball neatly past Seattle goalkeeper Stefan Frei, giving Wondolowski his second assist in as many games.
“Everybody just knows him as a goalscorer,” Quakes goalkeeper Jon Busch said after the Sounders match. “But he’s got a lot more in his locker than just scoring goals, and that was a perfect example tonight.”
If the Quakes are truly going to move out of the shadow of their target-forward past, it will likely require Wondolowski – the man who tied the league’s single-season scoring record with 27 goals in 2012 – to flourish in that same kind of role, moving afield from his accustomed hunting grounds inside the penalty area to set up teammates such as Djalo, Salinas and newcomer Matias Perez Garcia.
If Saturday is any indication, the 31-year-old could be up to the task.
“He’s been getting better and better every year,” Quakes coach Mark Watson said. “He’s primarily been about goals, but I think his general play has gotten better and better.”
It’s a move that Wondolowski might not have been able to make earlier in his career. For years, Wondolowski had his most success freelancing out of the secondary striker’s spot, identifying and exploiting holes in the opponents’ defense with ghosting runs that always seemed to put him in the right spot at the right time.
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Wondolowski diligently worked on his hold-up play, and even had a career-high seven assists in 2012, when the Quakes racked up a franchise-record 72 goals in regular-season play. Those efforts paid off at the international level when Wondolowski found success playing as the point man for Jurgen Klinsmann, pairing well with both Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey in the run-up to this summer’s World Cup.
“His time with the national team has helped,” Watson said. “Some of his passing, his hold-up play and his movement has improved year by year. I think now that he’s playing a little bit more forward with someone playing underneath, he’s had to tweak things a little bit. I think he’s showing just how versatile he can be.”
Could he eventually be versatile enough to change the public’s snapshot perception of him?
“That’s for them to discuss,” Wondolowski said. “I’ve never really gotten caught up in that. It is what it is. I just go out there and try to play the game to the best of my ability. If it’s poaching, if it’s playing, I just try to connect passes and try to do the things to win.”